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'Serendipitous Interaction' Key To Tech Firms' Workplace Design

Google employees play chess at the company's Russian headquarters in Moscow. Experts say tech companies are using "serendipitous interaction" in their workplace design to promote idea sharing and communication between employees.
Krasilnikov Stanislav
Google employees play chess at the company's Russian headquarters in Moscow. Experts say tech companies are using "serendipitous interaction" in their workplace design to promote idea sharing and communication between employees.

When Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer decided to end full-time work-from-home arrangements at her company, a cultural firestorm ignited. But it was just the latest step in Mayer's effort to transform Yahoo's culture.

When the company was founded in the 1990s, it was one of the most exciting places to work in Silicon Valley. Those days are over; Yahoo has fallen woefully behind in the talent wars and now is trying to catch up.

When you walk through Google's Mountain View, Calif., campus during lunchtime, it can feel a little bit like you're taking a college tour on a pleasant day.

There are folks playing beach volleyball in a sand pit outside the cafeteria. There are soccer games across the street — even a pick-up Frisbee game.

And while the free food inside the cafeteria is a lot nicer than the fare at most universities, the tables might take you back. Actually, the tables' length and design look like those in high school cafeterias.

"Why? Because when you put them back-to-back, people walk down between the chairs, they bump into each other — it's actually called a 'Google bump' — and you go, 'Hey!' and you sit down and talk," says John Sullivan, a management professor at San Francisco State University and workplace consultant.

He says none of this is by accident; it's called "serendipitous interaction" and it's all by design.

Google has spent a lot of time studying what makes workplaces innovative and casual interactions are important. Sullivan lists three factors to make that set companies apart: learning by interaction, collaborations and fun. "Most people just don't get that," he says.

The volleyball and Frisbee — even the length of the lines inside the cafeteria — are designed to make sure Google employees talk to others they don't necessarily work with.

Sullivan says they even measure the length of the cafeteria line. "Why? Because if there is no line you won't talk to anyone, you won't interact," he says.

By most accounts, this approach has been phenomenally successful. Google is ranked by Fortune magazine as the best place to work in the country. It attracts some of the brightest minds and earns close to $1 million in revenue for every single person it employs.

So Sullivan says it's no surprise Google's data-driven approach to managing its workplace has attracted imitators, including Facebook.

"Google and Facebook are metrics machines," he says. "So if you ask them what's the average time for a promotion, what's the percentage of women being promoted, they have it to a dime."

Facebook has a slightly different feel than Google. It celebrates hackers and pushes employees to "move fast and break things."

It poaches engineers from places like Google by promising them the chance to push code to the site on their first week and letting them pick new jobs for themselves just after a few months.

"When you start to see the best people migrating from one company to the next, it means then, that next wave is starting," Mayer, Yahoo's CEO, told an overflow crowd at this year's World Economic Forum in Davos.

"I believe that really strong companies all have very strong cultures," she said.

Facebook emphasizes freedom and so does Google, but both companies keep employees talking to each other. And it's no accident that when Facebook was looking for a chief operating officer it hired a former Google employee, Sheryl Sandberg.

Or last year, when Yahoo went searching for new a CEO, it took a similar tact.

"Fundamentally, technology companies live and die by talent," Mayer said.

For years, talent has been flowing out of Yahoo, not into it. Mayer is trying to turn that around with free food and phones. She's also personally reviewing most recruiting decisions.

"Part of that was because I wanted to make sure that Yahoo was absolutely the best place to work and that people really wanted to come and work there," she said.

While Yahoo has been slammed for what many saw as a tin-eared condemnation of telecommuting, some within the company argue that it's now infamous memo was really just part of a larger effort to energize Yahoo's culture and competitive spirit.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Steve Henn
Steve Henn is NPR's technology correspondent based in Menlo Park, California, who is currently on assignment with Planet Money. An award winning journalist, he now covers the intersection of technology and modern life - exploring how digital innovations are changing the way we interact with people we love, the institutions we depend on and the world around us. In 2012 he came frighteningly close to crashing one of the first Tesla sedans ever made. He has taken a ride in a self-driving car, and flown a drone around Stanford's campus with a legal expert on privacy and robotics.
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